Heritage turkeys, once common throughout the country, nearly vanished after the Broad-Breasted White turkey took over the retail market despite its many flaws. These ubiquitous birds cannot breed naturally and that sought-after breast meat is notoriously dry if cooked according to USDA guidelines. Brining, which became popular in the early 2000s, helps, but these turkeys are not known for their flavor or their texture.
As interest in preserving older varieties, breeds, and species of our food began to grow — a trend driven by conscientious farmers, chefs, Oldways of Boston, and Slow Food — heritage breeds of turkeys began to appear as Thanksgiving approached. They were and remain a regional delicacy, available near where they are raised and, occasionally, by mail order.
Narragansett is one of the most popular of the heritage turkey breeds, as are Bourbon Red and American Bronze. Other breeds include White Holland, Royal Palm, Slate, Jersey Bluff and Black. All are in danger of going extinct.
Twelve years ago, Sonoma County’s local 4-H launched its Heritage Turkey Project, with youth members — ages 9 to 19 — raising the birds at their homes throughout Sonoma County. Jim Reichardt of Liberty Duck worked with Hunt & Behrens, Inc., a feed mill in Petaluma nearing its 100th anniversary, to develop an organic feed, which all of the turkeys eat. He also organizes the harvesting of the turkeys each year.
This year there are 10 growers, each raising between 8 and 27 turkeys. There are about 225 birds available this year; breeds include American Bronze, Royal Palm, Slate, Black and Narragansett.
In 2006, Catherine and Chuck Thode of Sebastopol began to oversee the raising of the birds and the Russian River chapter of Slow Food stepped in to help with promotion and sales. which for several years has included an elegant dinner and auction. This year’s Heritage Turkey Sunday Supper was scheduled for Oct. 29 but was cancelled because of the fires. The location, Saralee and Richard’s Barn at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds, is being used for evacuation, rescue and recovery efforts, and many of the participating chefs have been involved in feeding evacuees.
Now, sales are taking place online at slowfoodrr.org. To reserve a bird, you fill out a form indicating the size you would like — smaller or larger are the options — and indicate whether you’d like to order pies or produce to pick up at the same time. You then mail in your deposit. You pay the balance when you pick up your bird in Sebastopol; specific instructions are sent after you make your reservations.
These turkeys sell for $9 a pound, a cost that reflects the rising cost of organic feed. The money goes directly to the 4-H members who have raised the bird.
The Sunday Supper always includes a live auction of various items, which is also taking place online now at the same website. To read about the elaborate menu the participating chefs were crafting, visit “Eat This Now” at pantry.blogs.pressdemocrat.com.
When it comes to cooking a heritage breed, you’ll need to make some adjustments. They are leaner than the big-breasted birds and benefit from hotter, faster cooking.
Jim Reichardt recommends deconstructing the bird, a process that the Thodes now use.